Manchester, N.H. — For the good of the country and the Republican party, Donald Trump has to be challenged from the right in 2020, Weekly Standard editor-at-large Bill Kristol told a friendly crowd of business executives and political insiders here Wednesday morning.
“I don’t know if a challenger would succeed. In my view, I think it’s important to have one just to force the debate,” Kristol said. “I think if Trump were to lose in 2020 it would allow for someone to step up and say, ‘Well, here’s a different way forward than just kind of trying to redo Trump over the next several years.’”
Kristol was the second prominent Never Trumper in as many months to appear at the Politics & Eggs event series, which puts political speakers in front of an audience of New England business leaders who tend to show up in charcoal suits, wearing name tags that flash impressive job titles. Senator Jeff Flake’s anti-Trump speech here at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics drew a standing ovation in April. Attacking Trump from the conservatarian right, Flake flirted with the idea of challenging Trump for the nomination in 2020. (Kristol, who rejects speculation that he might run himself, says he prefers to help find the right challenger, and thinks John Kasich is the most obvious and potentially formidable one.)
Flake came to New Hampshire to present a substantive argument that the Republican party should be reclaimed by true conservatives, those who believe in limited government, individual liberty, constitutional and social norms, and an inviting, tolerant, aspirational America. Kristol gave financiers and supporters of the idea of challenging Trump the argument that such a fight would not necessarily be quixotic.
“Right now Trump is popular obviously among Republicans, . . . but I think it’s overstated,” Kristol said. While acknowledging that Trump’s approval rating among Republicans is in the 80s, he noted that “about half of those people strongly approve, about half of those people somewhat approve” of the president, and argued that those numbers will likely change after the mid-term elections.
“That’s a judgment for now, but a lot of that is a retrospective judgment. It’s a lot about ‘But would you prefer Hillary?’ ‘But what about Gorsuch?’ All that has happened already,” Kristol said. “The big question for me is November 7. . . . Do you want four more years? It’s a prospective question. It’s a different question people have to ask themselves in 2019 than in 2018.”
“I think people are underestimating how big a pivot we have on November 7, 2018,” he continued. “If you look at the Morning Consult poll that just came out this morning, Trump loses to a Democrat in 2020 by eight points, 36–44. That may or may not be accurate. He was losing by several points to Hillary Clinton in the polls before that general election.”
“Thirty-eight percent of Republicans want a primary challenge to Trump. It doesn’t mean that they’ll all vote for that person, but they’d like to actually see a challenger to give them a choice. That includes 32 percent of those who voted for Trump,” he added. “So it is possible to say that, yeah, I approve of Trump, maybe not strongly but somewhat, but I’d also like to have maybe a choice, let me see who it is, in 2020, that’s different from Trump. That is not an impossible thing for a voter to hold in his head. You don’t have to be a Never Trumper to not be on board for eight years of Trump.”
Kristol gave financiers and supporters of the idea of challenging Trump the argument that such a fight would not necessarily be quixotic.
There is, of course, another possibility: Trump could have, at least in the eyes of a majority of Republicans, if not of all 2020 voters, a successful first term. In an interview after the event, Kristol addressed that scenario.
“I think it’s unlikely. I’m not betting on it. But I’ve been surprised before. There are two ways or maybe three ways he could be successful. . . . He could just get very lucky, that happens in life. People aren’t very good pitchers, but they pitch one very good game,” he said. “I’m not dogmatic about this. I think honestly the likelihood of downside surprises is greater than the likelihood of pleasant surprises. I think in a certain way he’s been pretty lucky so far. He’s been constrained in some ways so far. He’s had a good economy, and we’ve avoided any real foreign-policy disasters. I wouldn’t want to run that experiment too long. I think this is where people who aren’t quite where I am could pivot in 2019.”
In his speech, Kristol suggested that Republicans could tire of the chaos, risk, and extreme partisanship and look for a more steady leader two years from now.
“You can tell yourself, and this would be legitimate, that he disrupted things in some useful ways, he made some good appointments, we got some decent policies out of it,” he said. “But, you know, four more years of this kind of chaos? . . . Maybe we just sort of pocket our gains in 2020, so to speak, and try to find a younger candidate who could bring the party together, bring the country together.”
“One of the things the focus groups really do show is how unhappy most Americans are, including Trump supporters, with the divisiveness and the sense of just bitterness and everything is always a hyperpartisan fight, a personal fight, a fight in which you demean your opponents, and Americans really don’t like that,” he continued. “Again, a primary challenger could offer a way forward from that. The primary challenger who could win probably wouldn’t sound like me. He or she couldn’t be attacking Trump all the time.”
Unlike Flake, who offers no new ideas to address the concerns of Trump voters, Kristol acknowledged that the Republican party can’t recycle its old messages and policies.
“I do think there are actual policy responses to these concerns and anxieties, wage stagnation and so forth, that are important for a candidate to articulate,” he said. “I’m not for a candidate running a ‘Trump is horrible, let’s go back to the Republican party of 2015 or 2013 [campaign]’ or, you know, kind of a brain-dead xerox of the 2012 campaign.”
As we get deeper into the Trump presidency without any major disaster or overtly authoritarian shift in the administration, the push for a challenger from the right would seem to lose some of its sense of urgency for Americans who follow politics only occasionally and who trust our constitutional institutions to do their job and check the worst impulses of the president. Asked about this afterward, Kristol argued that the strength of America’s institutional checks on presidential power does not make replacing Trump as soon as possible any less urgent.
“I think the institutions have done pretty well,” he said. “I think the one institution that hasn’t done very well is the Republican party and Republicans in Congress. The urgency is, I would be pretty surprised if the economy is as good and the world is as stable and so forth a year and a half from now. If it is, the challenger won’t get that much momentum. I’m not blind to that.”
“But institutions hold until they don’t hold. They can get eroded until collapsing overnight. For me, the institutional problem is that one of our two major parties becomes not an American conservative party, a mixture of classical liberalism and traditionalism, . . . but a really European-style conservative party. And that’s a big change. Five years from now you [could] wind up with a very different kind of conservatism and a very different kind of Republican party.”
The business leaders to whom Kristol spoke seemed cheered by his message. He received encouragements and attaboys afterward, and people lined up to get his autograph and a photo with him. The response to the Flake speech in April, from Democrats and Republicans alike in attendance, was even more enthusiastic.
What remains to be seen is how the rest of New Hampshire — people who can’t take 90 minutes off from work to enjoy eggs, bacon, blueberry scones, and civil political discourse with financial advisers and bank presidents — would greet a conservative challenger to Trump. Through Twitter, Fox News, and every other outlet he can think of, the president is talking to these folks. Are any of his potential challengers?